When will the fixtures really start to even out?
Seven games into the season is the time when the table starts to shake out and look a bit more like something normal than some child’s abstract representation of what the Premier League might look like. It’s ‘Football Manager version of the Premier League’ rather than ‘Football Manager version of the World Cup’.
It’s a deceiving stage of the season though, because – while most fixture schedules with have roughly evened out so far – there’ll still be teams who’ve had it particularly tough or particularly nice.
For example, for most teams in the league, they’ll have six away trips to top six sides (the top six will, of course, have five of these). Three teams have had three of these games already, before the season is even a quarter-old.
Unsurprisingly, two of these – Everton and Crystal Palace – aren’t doing too well. However, the other is Burnley, who quite astoundingly managed to take five points out of those games.
You can look at having this tough schedule in two ways. Either it’s good to get them out of the way early when people are a little less antsy about the shape of the table, or it’s a series of roadblocks which stop you from getting your season off to a good start. Which one you choose probably depends on the results you got from them.
You could spend years devising a sophisticated fixture strength assessor, but – for the purposes of simplicity – the rest can be split in two. On one hand, home fixtures against ‘The Rest’ (ie not the Top Six) and then the home games against the top six, and all of the away games against The Rest.
Category 1 (home, vs bottom 14, winnable); Category 2 (home vs top 6/away vs bottom 14, maybe winnable/maybe drawable); Category 3 (away vs top 6, happy with a draw).
Despite having traveled to three of the Top Six early on, I don’t make Everton, Palace, or Burnley’s fixture schedules as the toughest so far. Instead, that silver lining of hope in an otherwise slow start goes to Leicester.
The Foxes have had two of those ‘Category 3’ games so far, with trips to Arsenal and Manchester United within their first three matches. However, they’ve also only had one seemingly-winnable ‘Category One’ game during their first seven, at home to Brighton – which they did indeed win.
Their other home ties have been a welcome to Chelsea and Liverpool, and while their remaining two away games were ‘only’ against Bournemouth and Huddersfield, these are still away trips that won’t have been easy. Five points from these seven may feel disappointing, but in reality, the maximum you could expect would probably only be about seven or eight.
That would put them in the lower midtable, as opposed to the just-above-the-relegation-zone area where they currently lie – not a big difference by the numbers, but a big difference in how it feels for the fans.
The point, in looking at who’s had a difficult run, is to say ‘hold on’, a little. Obviously, Palace has no excuse to have picked up no points, and Everton fans will rightfully be disappointed with their current position.
But it’s also worth bearing in mind that Bournemouth, in 19th, have had home games against City, Watford, Brighton, and Leicester – the latter three of which would seem fairly nice – and only picked up four points from them. Their travels have been to Arsenal, Everton, and West Brom, which isn’t easy, but to get nothing from any of them will be a little disappointing.
Finally, and at the other end of the table, Manchester United have had a very nice schedule compared to the rest of the league. They’ve not faced a single of the other top six sides, and their home games have been to welcome West Ham, Leicester, Everton, and Crystal Palace. Sure, the schedule has played a factor in the league table so far, but those four are all in the bottom six.
Contrast that to Manchester City, who’ve not only knocked off one of their ‘Category 3’ games with a game, and win, at Chelsea, but have also thumped Liverpool at home. The other away games at Brighton, Bournemouth, and Watford are pretty kind, but nothing can be taken for granted.
Watch these many, varied spaces over the coming months to see what happens when fixture schedules really start to even out properly.
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